Cockroaches and meteor-wrongs get the right ID at the Field Museum

By Michaela Meaney

Ever wonder if that rock you saw fall from the sky is a meteorite? Or what type of shell you picked up on the beach at Hilton Head? And just who is the bug that’s wandered up your wall? Have no fear, the Chicago Field Museum is here to identify your discoveries.

The museum’s recent Identification Day – a first – invited visitors to bring in fossils, insects and other objects or critters they wanted identified by museum researchers.

“I’m glad that they do this kind of stuff for people,” said Steve Penciak, 45, a systems engineer from Worth, who brought in what he originally thought was a fossilized egg. “People find stuff all the time and it’s a way for them to find out.” Penciak’s object was not in fact an egg, but a concretion, a layered accumulation of sediments and minerals. Bill Simpson, collections manager of fossil vertebrates and head of the geology collection, identified it.

“I like the fact that we get to reach out to the public,” said Robin DeLaPena, collections assistant and imaging specialist for the Field’s insect division. DeLaPena not only identified insects at the event but also had Madagascar hissing cockroaches at hand for the curious or brave interested in handling one. “I just love being able to say: ‘Do not be afraid,’” DeLaPena said.

Not all visitors were as comfortable handling cockroaches as DeLaPena though. Gloria Gates, 56, of Chicago, came to the museum to have one she found in her house properly identified. “

“Bringing it today, I’m going to be honest, I didn’t eat breakfast,” said Gates, a retired postal worker. Gates said she came to the museum because she thought it the best place to go with her dead specimen. DeLaPena identified it as a common North American cockroach.

Identification Day featured 10 different stations set up in Stanley Field Hall. Curators, collections managers and other museum researchers from areas including anthropology, vertebrate fossils, local plants and more gathered to identify visitors’ finds, answer questions and offer insights into their specializations to visitors who would not normally have the chance to interact with museum staff. After objects were properly identified, visitors also received certificates correctly labeling their prized possessions.

Some of the visitors’ objects posed challenges even to the experts. Robert Rice, 50, of Rogers Park, brought in part of a mystery plant that sprouted up next to a Datura he planted. When Rice showed the sample to Rebecca Collings, an ecologist with the museum’s Science Action center, Collings didn’t recognize it and turned to her computer to research the plant online. Rice, in turn, received an “I Stumped a Scientist” sticker from Collings.

“The plant world is so diverse,” said Collings, whose expertise is in local flora. She said tens of thousands of species exist in the area, and that number does not including the things people plant in their gardens.

Rudiger Bieler, curator of invertebrates, said he expected to see more stuff but thought the word needed to get out since this was the first event of its kinds for the Field Museum.

“It’s another avenue to get our visitors involved,” he said. Bieler explained that visitors often forget the museum is a research institute in addition to a display museum. “We rarely have the opportunity of having so many specimens on the floor at the same time,” he said, noting the variety of museum specimens brought out for ID day.

The certificates given to visitors were not official – Bieler noted more data and sophisticated techniques are needed to properly identify an object. “It might be a little door to more knowledge and more information,” Bieler said. People seemed pleased with their unofficial IDs of objects and the certificates. Experts identified more than 130 objects and an estimated 2,000 visitors interacted with staff at the event.

“I really hope that people walk away saying, ‘That was really cool, I want to go out and do that again,’” said Emily Waldren, the museum’s public relations manager.

Waldren explained that Identification Day was something the museum wanted to do for a few years, since other natural history museums offer similar events. She also said how she receives phone calls throughout the year from people who think they have found something and want to know who they can talk to, so this event offered a “one stop shop” for both visitors and the museum.

“We’re all about discovery. Our visitors have their own discoveries and this is the chance for them to share them,” Waldren said.